Thoughts on Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau

The Auschwitz Museum has just reported that the top ten countries from which visitors to the Museum/Memorial came in 2018 are: Poland (405,000), Great Britain(281,000), USA (136,000), Italy (116,000), Spain (95,000), Germany (76.000), France (69,000), Israel (65,000), Czech Republic (45,000), and Sweden (42,000). As someone noted, a site of mass extermination is now a site of mass tourism, and people are clearly attracted here in huge numbers. My wife and I were among that number when we took advantage of a Christmas stay in Krakow to visit the site.

Our trip to Krakow had already included a tour of Schindler’s Factory, the location of the powerful Spielberg film of Schindler’s List (1993). Oskar Schindler, a Nazi Party member and industrialist acquired an enamel factory in Krakow in 1939 not long after the German occupation of Poland. He used his position and influence, often at considerable personal risk, to save some 1,200 Jews who worked in the factory. What motivated him is still not clear. The exhibition in Krakow locates this story in the broader picture of the Nazi occupation of Krakow which became the centre of the “New Territory”, one of the reasons the city suffered so little destruction during the war. The young woman who was our tour guide took us through this history in an impassioned narrative that high-lighted Nazi atrocities, Polish resistance, and the heroism of Schindler and others. It provided a very appropriate background for our later visit to Auschwitz which is about 40 kilometres from Krakow – the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp which was on the outskirts of the city and which featured in the Spielberg film was destroyed by the Nazis at the end of 1944 when they began to hide the evidence of the genocide they had committed. This is one reason that Auschwitz-Birkenau is so important as solid visual evidence of what had taken place.

To some extent, I think visitors go to Auschwitz simply to see this evidence, to witness the largest centre of mass extermination established by the Nazis during World War II. The very existence of two camps, Auchwitz and Birkenau, provides evidence (if any were needed) to counter holocaust deniers. Located in the flat countryside in an unremarkable area near the former town of Oświęcim, Auschwitz, formerly a pre-war Polish military barracks, was primarily a work camp with the savagely ironic words “Arbeit Mach Frei” (Work Makes Free) above its gates; Birkenau was established nearby slightly later and was a place of mass extermination with gas chambers and ovens to dispose of the dead. Some 1.1 million people died here, the majority of them were Jews, many of them from Poland itself. Among those who died were 232, 000 children.

The Auschwitz buildings remain virtually intact and now house exhibits and displays describing events in the camp. Again we had a guide who gave a detailed account of what happened here – such was the nature of the content delivered in an hour and a half I had to ask him how he could do it six days a week and he pointed out that, of course, it was a job, but also he felt he had to narrate this history. The displays include piles of suitcases, shoes and other garments taken from those who arrived here. All are powerful and affective images – for me the sight of a little child’s shorts was almost too much. One display consists simply of huge piles of two tons of hair shaved off female inmates. Walls are lined with photographs of inmates with dates of arrival and death – giving identities to the many nameless victims. Again, although all were shocking, it was only when I saw an individual with the same name as a Polish friend in Britain that the tears began to flow. The occupation of this person was simply listed as “shoemaker” and all I could think was “why? why?”

Most of the Birkenau camp was destroyed by the Nazis as they fled they oncoming Soviet Army but the outlines of the camp can be seen and some buildings have been restored or preserved. Because it was essentially a place where people died, it has been decided that this site should be left largely untouched with no exhibitions. The few remaining huts give a very good idea of the bleak life led before the inhabitants died or were murdered. Two things stood out for me – the enormity of this site: it is huge; and secondly, the silence … not a bird in the sky, not a song in the air. As we left, a group of Jewish visitors were arriving, marching locked arm-in-arm, four abreast with their leader playing some Jewish music … it was almost too much. Auschwitz-Birkenau stands as a museum – preserving the past, with records, exhibitions, and archives; it also stands as a memorial to those many dead and the ideology that led to this. As our guide said, “The lessons are still relevant today”.

Professor Neil A. Wynn


Neil Wynn says:

Some additional points on this piece:
It is often claimed people did not know about Hitler’s “Final Solution”: in fact, people in Poland knew, the Polish government in exile informed UK and US governments as early as 1940 and continued to inform them; there was not only resistance within Auschwitz – Birkenau, but a tiny number of people escaped and passed on information about what was happening …

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